In the United States, we once again celebrate the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom on July 4th. Our forebears penned a document to express their dissatisfaction with the governance of the colonies in America by that Kingdom, and announced the formation of a new government, one that was meant to ensure individual liberty. As things have developed, we might question where that experiment lies, so I hope to share with you my insights into where I am convinced it ought.
Individual liberty? What does that mean, properly understood? Personal and limitless autonomy? Freedom to do whatever and whenever and to and with whomever one might please? I hope we can all agree that this kind of expression of freedom has the possibility of ending in a terrible way.
For much of my adult life, I lived outside of faith in Jesus and I had no awareness of the beauty of the Catholic Church. Then, about 12 years ago, life events brought me back to Christianity. Two years after that, I crossed the Tiber and came home to Rome. A shattering loss left me alone in silence, and the only advice I got came from my mother, when she told me to get on my knees and pray. It took time to come around, but solitude compelled me to say, what do I have to lose? “God, if you’re there, here am I, please help me.” And the conversation started.
There was no a booming voice from the clouds that instantly responded, but a gradual small breeze of little revelations and realizations that led me back to the faith into which I was baptized as a boy some 35 years before. Over the days, then weeks, then months ahead, God made Himself apparent in the little things that have now become the first things in my life. Eventually, I did hear a voice – but it took months upon months of intense petition on my part and was on a very specific thing. So that is not to say I “hear” Him often, but He reveals Himself every day now that I have tuned the radio dial just right to be on the same frequency!
That conversation has brought me from life as a modern-day pagan, to an on-fire, truly born-again believer. Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, died, resurrected, and ascended into heaven has pulled me up from the depths of my own sin and vivified a spiritually dead man, and I can’t help but want to share that renewed life in Him with anyone who has ears to hear. And what a yoke to share with Him!
So that’s the good part. I know Jesus is real, and He is alive, and He is here with us. Since I know that to be true, and I know that He is the Word of God, then I must immerse myself in the Word. In Sacred Scripture, He speaks to us. He shares the wonders of creation and reveals His love for us. And then, as I read the bible cover to cover for the first time at age 42, I was struck with the realization that there are two sides of the coin. Jesus personally speaks of the existence of evil spirits, and the terrors of Gehenna. If you believe the good stuff, you have to believe this too. That’s right, there is also a hell. At the very least, it is separation from Him for eternity, and I lived that for a short, by comparison, 35 years – never again.
My own pride had separated me from living with the God who loved me into existence, sustained me in existence, and who longed for me to reciprocate that love. You see, I’ve been bitten by the devil that is in this world, and it left a mark. Christ has healed much of it, and He is still working out that healing so long as I remain supple to it. So where I am going with this? I’ll tell you. I know and love Jesus. That is a great good. But to love the ultimate Good, also means a necessary awareness of an ultimate evil in opposition to it. Since I don’t want any part of that evil, I go to the Word to know how to avoid it.
The Bible is not just history, poetry, prose, or mystic nonsense, it is the canon of Sacred Scripture, written by men and women in the language and context of their time, but infallibly and inviolably the word of God. My grandfather gave me a Bible when I turned 18 and told me that all the answers were in it. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but he was right, and now I like to think of it as an owner’s manual for the human person. If we read it, interpret it properly and put into practice what it tells us, it all works. We are united with Him and assured of His companionship and protection. If we fail at this, it all falls apart. That is not to say that once we know and love Jesus we won’t ever suffer or feel loss or hardship, but that we are assured that at the end of our earthly trial we will spend eternity with Him. That’s what I want for myself, and it is what I want for you.
And so, back to Independence Day. Independence from what? From who? To what end? Liberty? Why? Because God wants us to know and worship Him. You see my friends, this liberty is properly understood as freedom to follow Jesus and to live as He wills. He gives us hundreds, if not thousands, of bits of insight into how to follow Him.
Let’s consider a few:
Ephesians 4:17-19 then 22-24 tells us to renounce and turn from the ways of the “Gentiles” – essentially the culture outside of Christianity. The next logical question is, how do we do that? A good start is the basic framework found in Exodus 20:1-17, the ten commandments.
The first three tell us what God’s desire is as it relates to Him.
- I am the Lord your God – put no other gods before me. God first – all the time, not just when it feels good.
- Do not bow down to or worship any other thing. No false idols – money, cars, jobs, prestige, government, climate?
- Do not take God’s name in vain – try watching television and see how long it takes for this to be broken. There is power in the name and it is not to be invoked or spoken improperly.
The remaining seven go to how we are meant to properly live in the world.
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy – go to Church every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation!
- Honor your father and your mother – some will add this applies to duly established authorities outside of birth parents.
- Do not murder – unlawful and intentional killing of an innocent human being. Is there anyone more innocent than an unborn child?
- Do not commit adultery – and Jesus said that even when you look upon another with lust, you have done so in your heart.
- Do not steal – doesn’t have to be limited to material items. How many times have we stolen someone’s joy, or peace, or innocence?
- Do not bear false witness – lying, in a way, stealing the truth – or maybe even just not speaking the truth, if it is done to intentionally deceive.
- Do not covet that which is not yours – greed. How often do we hear today about how it isn’t fair that someone else has all that money, or education, or privilege, and that it should be taken away from them by societal force and given to someone else?
So there is the scaffolding, or basic framework for life. How do we apply this to daily interactions? Ephesians is one of my favourite books, so I suggest when you’re done reading this, you go to Ephesians 5:3 – 6:9 and see what this has to say about living as a Christian. Some of these passages may make you squirm a little, but that’s the point!
And what can we be assured of once we orient our lives this way? Check out the Beatitudes, from the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:3-13. Look at the last one, especially. If we are living an authentically Christian life, we will be targets of persecution. So, if you are not being persecuted, you might question if you are being authentically Christian!
The vast majority of the founding fathers of the United States were at least familiar with, if not entirely masters of, everything I just mentioned, and most of them were devout in the practice of their Christian faith. They were products of a university educational system that had begun in 13th century Christian Europe, had been developed through an additional 5 centuries of thought and examination and that had been transplanted in these thirteen British colonies across the Atlantic ocean. This was the foundation upon which they established their larger world view, meaning that in 1776 they had a solid notion of the nature and proper end of the human person.
You see, the independence our founding fathers wanted for us was freedom for the good. That is not the same thing as freedom from boundaries, or right behaviour. My mother-in-law, mentioned to me once that she found the ending of the movie Braveheart troubling. Of course, the depiction of the gruesome torture and killing by being drawn and quartered of William Wallace is troubling in itself. But it wasn’t just that. For her, it was his yelling as his last word, FREEDOM! that bothered her, as if that is the necessary end-all be-all. We live in an age and society that tells us we are free to do whatever we want, with whomever we wish, when and wherever we please, and who are you to judge? I offer that this is not liberty, this is licentiousness. And that is a ticket to slavery. Back to one last look at the Bible. Since I want you to read it yourself, I will simply leave the citation for the Gospel of John 8:34-36.
We are designed by our Creator to freely choose the Good, and to put that into practice in our daily lives. And that is the challenge I wish to leave with you today. Know and choose the Good that is Jesus. Use, and live, your liberty well.